Remembering 50 years of opera at Laurier

Graphic by Jamie Mere

With the closing of their final performance of The Llandovery Castle on Mar. 1, Laurier’s faculty of music is celebrating 50 years of Opera Laurier, the dynamic performance program that casts undergraduate and opera diploma students into full-blown productions.

The first ever Opera Laurier performance back in 1970 was a monodrama performed by artist-in-residence Carrol Anne Curry on Jan. 21, 1970 in a third-floor arts classroom, a piece composed by Poulenc. The advertising for the piece was a simple, hand-drawn post with a picture of Curry on it.

Now, 50 years later, the productions include 12 Canadian premieres of operas through Opera Laurier, including this year’s The Llandovery Castle, multiple Mozart operas as he is the school’s most performed composer and a performance of The Magic Flute in 2011 where current students and alumni performed together celebrating Laurier’s centennial year.

“Opera provides so many transferrable skills and the reason is that it is an absolute team effort, you can’t produce an opera without the cooperation of every individual who is involved because it is such a complex art form that combines theatre, music, movement, scenic elements, orchestra, lighting and sets,” said Kimberly Barber, administrative coordinator of opera for Laurier’s faculty of music.

Laurier’s faculty of music requires third and fourth year students to take at least one full-year opera course, in which they partake in both opera excerpts in the fall as well as a fully produced opera in the spring. Though only required once, many students take it in both of their upper years, as well as return to Laurier after finishing their undergraduate degree to earn an Opera diploma and join the production for a third time.

Though many students in their third year are cast in the chorus, the skills they learn both on and off stage help them develop their musical presence and spark a love for opera that encourages them to return to the opera for one or two more years.

“The weakest link is always going to be the thing that makes or breaks a production, so when you’re in the chorus if you are really invested and committed to the performance and you bring your absolute best self, that lifts up the entire production,” Barber said.

“There are very, very few operas that can ride simply on a powerful performance from one person, all the elements need to come together so when they are involved in the opera course, they not only learn their part they have to sing and act in, so they get acting training, but we do a lot of work on stage craft, how to interact with colleagues in a professional manner, we are teaching life skills.”

In the last five years, Opera Laurier has put on shows such as Cendrillion, The Tender Land, The Tales of Hoffman and The Cunning Little Vixen. On top of being in the shows, students also help build the sets, do each other’s hair, make-up and costumes, plan the staging and tie together the show.
“We don’t have a huge budget and so we’re dependant on the involvement of the students in every aspect of production, so rather than that being a disadvantage, we turn that into an advantage by involving the students that part of their coursework also has to do with production elements,” Barber said.

For this year’s production, an extra special show as it celebrated half a century of opera at Laurier, came full circle as the opera was composed by Stephanie Martin, a graduate of the Laurier faculty of music composition program in 1985.

“At Laurier we have a strong brand and at Opera Laurier, for innovation, for re-imagining the art form of really experiencing opera as theatre, it never feels like a museum piece and has production value, the feeling of it being an immersive experience and the relevance,” Barber said.

“It’s extremely socially relevant as we talk about global conflict, I think we can all identify with that and for Laurier to produce a world premiere, the first time this opera was professionally fully staged which was written by Laurier composition alumna, we were extremely proud in this year to produce the work of someone who had graduated from our program.”

Though the run of 2020’s shows have now ended, future, current and past Laurier Music students alike can appreciate the productions they have or will be a part of in their time at Laurier knowing how it can help them develop much beyond their time on campus.

“Our founding fathers of our program, Victor Martens and David Falk, really against the odds they bought this undergraduate opera program which we have now taken forward to such a level where we really can offer our students an incredibly immersive, hands-on undergraduate opera experience,” Barber said.

“I think it’s really quite extraordinary and we’ve built on a great legacy and we continue to take it forward.”

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